I’ve almost forgotten how to run. The soles of my knackered trainers snap against the concrete. I’m hugging my jacket with my elbows. I’ve got one eye on the street ahead and the other on the page bobbing up and down in my left hand.
I’d usually feel quite guilty about stealing someone’s possessions, but this guy looked like he could afford to lose a few quid. He was standing outside the train station texting with his manbag at his feet, just asking for it to be snatched. He looked like one of those fools-to-themselves who take the two-hours-each-way trip from Bognor to London every day like I used to do.
As I tug the manbag to my chest, the four corners of the guy’s laptop dig into my skin. I wonder how much it’s worth.
I snatch a quick glance over my shoulder. Those two cops are still about ten feet behind. The street is crowded enough for me to lose them easily. No one’s getting out of our way, so the cops are shouting “Excuse me!” every few seconds. There’s something hilariously polite and English about this whole scene, which I don’t have time to dwell on right now.
I dive down a side street, straight into a tea shop. I order a cup of tea and a scone, and sit down in the corner away from the window.
I’ve just realised there’s an old lady sitting next to me. I was too busy concentrating on what I was doing to notice whether I sat down next to her or the other way round.
“Hello,” she says.
“Hello,” I say.
“What are you writing?”
“Good question. I suppose you could call it a diary, but it’s more of a documentary.”
“You’re very quick,” she says.
“Stop looking,” I say. “You’re putting me off.”
“Sorry,” she says. “It’s just a bit of a novelty seeing my words appear on a sheet of paper almost as soon as they’ve left my lips.”
“I suppose it’s quite impressive,” I say. (That last line was delivered while looking her right in the eyes.)
“You can do it without looking?” she says.
I say, “It’s no different to touch-typing, really.”
“Well, that’s quite a skill you’ve got there,” she says. “What’s your name?”
“Wilson,” I say. “Wilson Brook.”
“Well, Mr Brook, it’s very nice to meet you. My name’s Muriel.”
I suddenly feel self-conscious about the bag in my jacket and pull the zip up to my neck.
“Why have you got a bag in your jacket?” says Muriel.
“Then why did you just write “I suddenly feel self-conscious about the bag in my jacket”?”
“I told you, stop looking! If you must know, the shoulder strap’s broken.”
Muriel winks at me in a peculiarly flirtatious way. “Don’t worry,” she says. “I won’t tell. You’re obviously a little short of cash.”
“How do you know?” I say.
“I gathered from your appearance,” says Muriel. “You look like you haven’t eaten a decent meal in a while.”
“I’ll eat well tonight,” I say.
“What will you have?”
There’s a moments’ silence, filled only by me scribbling, wondering how this sentence is going to end and how the next is going to start.
“Why are you so interested?” I say.
“I think you’re very interesting,” she says. “For example, how is it that a man as talented as yourself has such little money?”
“I made quite a good living once upon a time,” I say.
“What did you do?”
I go on to tell her about my former occupation as a court reporter. Professional stenographers are expected to type at a speed of up three-hundred words per minute if required. I could easily do a thousand. Without trying particularly hard, I was able to record every single syllable, every comma, and every obscure nugget of jargon with one hundred percent accuracy. Through the whole of my career, I never made a typo. Towards the end, I was accused of deviating from the formula, but even today I’d contest that. All I was doing was adding additional value.
“Justice Anderson pauses, the faintest crinkle appearing between his conjoined eyebrows, like a mole surreptitiously peeping from its soil hillock. For a moment he seems to be on the verge of questioning the mental capacity of several of the jurors.”
It was this comment in particular that led to me being severely reprimanded. I was firmly reminded of my obligation to stick to the facts.
“But what are facts, Muriel?” I say.
“What are you getting at?” she says. “Was this the argument you used to justify your embellishments in court?”
“No, but I like that word – I should’ve said that. Embellishment. It’s a shame the officials didn’t see it that way. I was blacklisted. Everyone heard the story about the court reporter who thought he was writing legal thrillers. It’s an unfair description. I may be many things, but I ain’t John Grisham.”
I decide to stop quoting dialogue directly and go back to summarising. I continue telling Muriel my story but in different words to the ones I’m using here. She’s listening to me, but I can see her attention is also directed at my hand. I like impressing her. Hello, Muriel.
Anyway, back to the story. On the day I lost my job, I went to the bar next door to the court, accompanied by the small carrier bag of souvenirs I’d gathered from the office. I ignored the huddle of vaguely-recognisable legal professionals and sat up at the bar, drinking a coffee. After a few minutes staring into space, I realised there was a woman sitting next to me looking similarly dejected. I’d seen her around a few times, but we’d never spoken.
“What’s wrong?” I said.
“Nothing really,” she said. “I just lost my job.”
“Snap,” I said. “What did you do?”
“No, but what did you do for a living?”
“I was a courtroom artist.”
“Are they making cutbacks or something?”
“It was my own stupid fault. Not drawing accurately enough.”
“That was exactly my problem,” I said.
“I bet you didn’t go as far as I did,” she said.
“Why? What did you do?”
“I captured everything as it should’ve been – but when it came to the defendant, I … well, I used a little artistic licence.”
“In what way?”
“I gave her a halo.”
Muriel finds this very amusing. I didn’t think of it as funny at the time – but now it occurs to me it’s been a long while since I laughed at anything. I laugh with Muriel now, sucking in the sweet tearoom air and spluttering it out, spraying crumbs over the surface of the table.
“So what happened next?” she says.
“My next job was in television,” I say. “Subtitling. Similar story. It was all going so well, then for some reason I decided some of the dialogue needed a little correction. At first it was just grammatical stuff, but then I started adding my own metaphors. One afternoon, I was transcribing the commentary for a tennis game. I was so bored by the unimaginative waffling of the commentators that I ignored them completely, and offered my own interpretation. It was good stuff, actually. Some of it was quite poetic. I lasted about quarter of an hour before they ejected me from the building.”
“You’re a creative person,” says Muriel. “That’s your problem.”
“It’s certainly landed me in trouble. I could’ve been moderately successful. I wouldn’t have been rich, or happy or anything, but I would’ve been comfortable.”
“Are you happy now?” says Muriel.
“I’d like to think so. It’s difficult to say. This project of mine” – I gesture towards the notebook with my free hand – “it takes up so much of my time. I like it. It’s what I want to do. It’s what I was born to do, I think.”
“Well, that’s extraordinary,” says Muriel. “It’s so refreshing to see a writer like yourself who’s so committed to his work.”
Muriel looks down at the page, observing her last piece of dialogue.
“I didn’t say that,” she says.
“No, but it’s the sort of thing you might have said.”
“How do you know that?” she says. “You don’t know my mind, young man.”
There goes that cheeky wink again.
“OK,” I say. “To be honest, I think I just wrote that for my own amusement. I don’t write for anyone else apart from myself, you see. I prefer things that way.”
“Perhaps it’s time for you to share your gift, Wilson.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’d like to take you out to dinner tonight,” she says. “Anywhere you want to go. On me. Maybe that nice Thai place on the seafront, or one of those country pubs outside of town.”
“Are you sure?”
“You look like you could use a decent meal.”
“I’ll take you out on one condition, Wilson. I want you to put the notebook down. Keep it in your pocket. Don’t write anything – don’t even touch your pen for the entire evening.”
“Can’t do it,” I say, emphasising the full stop. “Final word on the subject.”
“That’s a pity.”
“It is, isn’t it?”
“Just out of interest,” she says, “how long have you been writing in that notebook?”
“Four years, give or take. Obviously not just in this notebook. There’s a load more back at my place.”
“How often do you take breaks?”
Muriel watches me take a sip of tea with one hand whilst scribbling this with the other.
“I don’t take breaks,” I say.
“Do you write while you’re in the bath?”
“What about when you’re putting your clothes on? Surely you need two hands for that.”
“Most people do.”
“What about when you’re … you know …”
“You know what?”
“When you’re with a lady friend.”
“I don’t have a lady friend.”
“No man friend either.”
“Same here, I’m afraid,” says Muriel with a sigh. She glances around the empty tearoom. “You know, I’d very much like to see your collection of notebooks. There must be an awful lot of them if you’ve been doing this for four years.”
I polish off the rest of my tea, and flash her a casual smile. I’m about to say something that I haven’t said to anyone for a long time: “My place isn’t far from here if you fancy a walk.”
Muriel picks up her large leather handbag, and pulls on her coat. I pull the manbag out of the front of my jacket and hang it over my shoulder.
“It probably looks a bit more inconspicuous if I just carry this,” I say.
We walk through the arcade, over the road and through the empty market.
“Don’t you ever bump into people?” she says.
“I can multi-task,” I say. “You see all these amateurs wandering around Tweeting – they’re the ones endangering themselves.”
It’s windy on the seafront. There’s no one on the beach apart from a few dog walkers. Muriel hangs onto my arm as we walk along the promenade.
“You haven’t written anything for a while,” she says. “Ooops. Sorry – there you go again. It just goes to show, you can take a break when you want to.”
“Not for very long.”
“Is it far now?” she says.
We’re walking on the pebbles now, wading up to our ankles in slippery stones. Muriel giggles as she loses a shoe.
“Oh, Wilson!” she cries. “This is another fine mess you’ve got us into!”
“We’re here now,” I say.
We look to our right.
“You live in a beach hut?” she says.
“Sort of,” I say. “I don’t know whose it is, but no one’s thrown me out yet.”
Muriel falls silent as I swing open the door. Inside the hut, my camp bed takes up around half of the floor space, the rest of which is covered by stacks of notebooks, each of them reaching the ceiling.
“So, you really have been writing for four years?” she says after a while.
“How often do you read these back to yourself?”
“Every once in a while. I just pick a book at random. It’s comforting.”
“Would you like other people to read them too?”
“You can take a look if you like.”
Muriel creeps towards the books. She picks one up, opening at a random page.
She reads aloud:
“Some kids are down by the water’s edge looking for flat stones. There aren’t any on this beach, but it doesn’t stop people searching. As soon as a flat stone arrives, someone throws it straight into the sea. It’s a zero-tolerance policy.
“As a last resort, one of the kids has picked up a round pebble with a straight edge on one side.
““It won’t skim,” says his mate. “It’s too chunky.”
““Nah,” says the child. “I can skim this three or four times at least.”
““Loser gets a shor-for,” says his mate. (They’re a little too far away to hear every word. It sounded like “shor-for,” anyway.)
“The kid swings his arm back, gripping the pebble like a discus. He hurls it at precisely the wrong moment, just when a wave is smashing against the sand. “Awwww!” he says.
““I told you,” says his friend.
““Not fair!” he says. “That would’ve skimmed like anything.”
““Too bad for you,” says his friend. “Now you get a shor-for.”
““I didn’t agree to that.”
““I told you.”“
Muriel puts the book down.
“I really admire what you’re doing,” she says. “It’s good to see someone so dedicated to their art. You have a rare integrity, Wilson.”
“Thank you,” I say.
“I didn’t say that.”
“Please stop looking.”
“Why don’t you write what I actually said? Then you can write what you actually replied. I’m watching you, Wilson. I’m not going to stop watching you. Someone needs to.”
OK. Here’s what Muriel actually said: “I think it’s time for you to stop now.”
And here’s what I replied: “I can’t.”
“Do you ever run out of things to say?” she says.
“I don’t think I ever will. The words just keep on coming. Even when I’m asleep, I’ve got my notebook in my hand. I wake up and read my dreams back to myself. It’s not all that much different to being awake.”
“Why do you do it?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “Don’t think I haven’t thought about that. You’ll find pages and pages of analysis scattered throughout these books. I just can’t stop.”
“You can stop it any time you like,” says Muriel. “Put the pen down. Put the book down. You can do it.”
I say, “I can’t stop the words. If I stop, they’ll come pouring out of my mouth. If you gag me, they’ll be spilling out of my ears. They’ll stream out of my nose when I breathe. I don’t know where the words come from, or what they want. They’re making me sick.”
Her arms are clutching onto me. She’s getting in the way of the book, but it feels good.
We’ve been standing here for some time now. Muriel with her arms around me, thinking of nothing.
Without warning, she makes a sudden grab. I try to stop her, but she’s got a firm grip for a woman of her age.
Before I know what’s happening, she’s galloping across the pebbles towards the water.
“It won’t work!” I shout. “Don’t you see, this isn’t going to work!”
There’s a soft, distant plop as the notebook is swallowed by the English Channel.
I’ve often wondered how this would feel. It’s been a recurring nightmare for quite some time.
Strangely, I don’t feel anything. Losing the notebook doesn’t matter, because as you can see, the words just keep on coming.
Muriel spins around, smugly jubilant until she sees what I see, clear as day, scrawled across the air between us. The words are writing themselves. They’re beautiful, cruel abominations, mocking us, yet celebrating everything we are.
“I tried to warn you,” I say.
She says nothing. She watches as the words “I tried to warn you” floating in the breeze.
Silence kicks in. Perhaps that’s what the words wanted all along. The question remains hanging – did the words free themselves, or have I freed myself of the words?
Muriel scrambles up the beach towards me, unsure whether to ignore what’s happening, run from it, or rejoice.
I stand motionless, quietly reading.